Plumbing standards and horses for courses

By Mike Muller

I am lucky because I get to travel quite a lot, which helps because I am not always stepping on the toes of my former colleagues at the Department of Water and Sanitation.

It was in my US hotel bathroom that my thoughts turned to the importance of plumbing “software”. We all know that a well-made piece of equipment does not, by itself, do a good job. While we can and must worry about getting the technical specifications and standards right for the application, we also need to consider the software — ensuring users know how to use the product. The bathroom taps in my hotel bathroom were interesting, but clearly inappropriate. They were single unit mixers, operated by a clever cylindrical control that you had to pull up towards you to start the flow of water and then rotate to adjust the temperature.

Except, those “handles” are not clever. Most people, when they see a cylindrical tap, try to turn it on using a turning movement. These units gave no indication to the contrary. So many people had (as I did) tried to turn the basin tap and when no water came out, they just turned harder until the internal fitting broke. As a result, the tap just went round and round. Even if you knew how it was supposed to work, it was difficult to control the temperature.

This was a really stupid specification for a hotel in a university town with many foreign visitors. It was causing no end of grief. While I waited for my lift in the reception one morning, three separate complaints about the water were lodged by guests in 15 minutes! This hardware had been specified with no thought to the software needed to support its proper use. And since hotels cannot predict what language or technical training their guests will have, it would have been far more sensible to specify a more common piece of kit.

On the other hand, I saw an excellent example of a sensible application of hardware during my next stop, which was Vienna, Austria. The Viennese have a thriving tourist business selling rides in horse-drawn carriages around their tourist sites. But sanitation is a serious problem with animal drawn transport in a nice clean European city like Vienna.

So the Austrians have provided bucket toilets for their horses. This is no joke. They attach canvas toilet bags to the unfortunate animals’ rear-ends, with buckets in the bottom to collect the droppings. It seems to work. But what was most impressive was the software — and I am not referring to the manure. Every now and then, a horse will have an accident (or the bucket will shift) and there will be some spillage. When that happens, the cab drivers know they must use the mobile phones to summon the municipality’s mechanised pooper-scooper to clean up the mess before it is spread too far.

The one thing they have not got right is the other sanitary function. On the hot afternoon that I was there, the smell of horses’ urine at the cab rank was appalling — and bad for business. Clearly, they need some technical improvements. Perhaps our Water Research Commission could engage in a little technology transfer — the urine diversion toilet is, after all, a South African innovation!


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